Hair, identity, science, soul

How to Pay Attention

I hate my hair and how it always looks like shit. My team’s project manager is a Jill of All Trades. She is competent and confident. I trust her. She says she wants to cut it for me, so I agree.

It’s a surprise: she works her magic on me in a dark, windowless office. When she is done, she takes me to the bathroom and points me in front of the mirror. I see my hair is shaved, with a puff of blond scrub on the top of my head, pinhead style.

The severity suits my rage, and the carnival freakness of it is a perfect reflection of how I feel inside.

This is a dream. In waking life, my body is like an unruly child: disobedient, willful, purposefully aggravating. It doesn’t want to get in line and yield to who is boss here. An array of symptoms and annoyances sprout and overlap, crowding each other.

Though I have agreed to take it on this journey, my hair is one more needy toddler—the sort that melts down at grocery stores and doesn’t want the offered snack. I want it to SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! I have given it what it wants: I am no longer flat ironing it and blow drying it. Sometimes I brush it out, trying to make it as puffy and large and ugly as I can. Or, not able to look at it another second, I’d furiously scrub and rewash it late at night, for the umpteenth time, resetting, trying to undo, trying to redo, trying to like what I see.

We are the sort of people who don’t talk about things. It is a kind of politeness not to make trouble. Be quiet until you can’t be anymore, then be loud and unpleasant. Imagine me, tiny. My pet rabbit has just been gutted by another animal. I found him, hollowed out and stiff. Later, we visit relatives. I’m weeping, weeping, weeping. I can’t figure out why no one is reacting. But it turns out my parents have put out advanced word. I want someone to notice.

Mirrors and reflections by other people show you how far out of spec you are—carnival freak? Or just ugly? I google wave/curl categories trying to find someone who looks like me. No one looks like me. No one comments on my hair.

I found all the Youtubers I could. Wavy. Check. Fine. Check. Fine, wavy hair is supposed to be “easy.” It can be beachy! It holds curl! It’s easy to straighten! Mine was none of these things, but OK. I tried not to weigh it down, so I bought detanglers. And because fine hair LOOOOOVES protein, I used a lot. I used it until my hair got straight and floated away from my head like a balloon. Then I used less.

I didn’t actually study the hair of some of these people whose techniques I was turning into my bible. Did it even look good? I just obediently followed. My hair bent and was large, kind of. It dried in a snap! It looked wildly different from day to day. Finally it took on a crunchy, product-y sheen.

I don’t know how I realized something was wrong, but finally I did. What I thought was “normal,” was me punishing my hair. Then punishing it some more for being frustrating. So I stopped.

I’m learning, and it is learning. It has never—not once in the entirety of my life—been able to express its true nature. Listening to it and supporting it is the least I can do.



My uncle and my grandfather, both dead, have been in my dreams lately. They show up at parties or hover in the corner of my living room.

In one dream, my grandfather shows me pictures of women that I know: every one has a single whirl of hair on the side of her head—I recognize the shape from my early days trying to wear my hair natural, when my hair was trying to curl from the root and sometimes managed to take the rest of the damaged clump along.

In another dream, my uncle appears, and I notice his hair has a strange texture—kinky.

In yet another, at my grandfather’s direction, I am digging through my own hair, uncovering objects under frizz—family photos.

The meaning comes in flashes in some cases and is more muddled in others. The good girls with curls are versions of me—achieving, driving themselves into the ground. Their curls in real life smoothed out to please but visible if you know what to look for.

Others are more cryptic. They show me the thing buried, what’s mine and theirs to carry but not original to any of us. Whether it’s a gift, a hidden shame, or something else, is unclear.


My great grandmother had extremely curly hair. In pictures, it is hard to tell its exact shape—it is large, contained under hats, but burgeoning out the sides. My mother notes often how strange it is how no one managed to get that hair.

I never met my great grandmother. She died at 27, of tuberculosis. I don’t know how she felt about her hair. Her son, my grandfather, had smooth hair that practically stood up straight around his head.

I’ve read that curly hair is incompletely dominant. That is, it expresses if it is present, but it blends with the straight gene to give the range of wave. In Mendelian genetic terms, if my great grandmother had curly hair, she had alleles “CC,” one from each parent. So my grandfather’s alleles were probably “Cs,” wavy.

I’ve studied my mother’s childhood pictures—siblings in matching outfits, the hairstyles a freeze-frame of time. My mother has razor-straight bangs, around which the rest of her hair curls, soft and shiny. My aunt has lighter hair, frizzy and poking out of pigtails. My uncle’s hair is buzz-cut, so it’s hard to tell what it might look like if it were allowed to move in its own directions.


“You’re too young to be washing your own hair,” my grandmother says, while furiously shampooing after my prior efforts failed to meet with her approval. I am 10.

This memory pops into my head regularly over the intervening years. I absorbed my hair’s weirdness, pathologized it, then blamed myself for being too lazy or too incompetent to deal with it well enough.

My mother’s hair in the photo, short always, with bangs. Mine long and constantly tangled. Hair is the porous membrane between self and other when we’re young. Whose identity are we reflecting? Whose needs and wants win?

It can be manipulated to mask its nature, it can be abused, it can be ignored. But its essence remains.


The thing about curly hair is that every person’s is unique—pattern, texture, and density interplay to create an individual expression. Some people just are, unalterable, to joy or despair, or maybe ambivalence. Other people seem distorted or uncategorizable.

There is nature, but there is also nurturing and patience required sometimes to see the cohesive whole. There is always a cohesive whole. Mine clicks into focus a little more every day. It is beautiful and has its own logic and symmetry. I’m only sad that it took me this long to discover.


Makeover Issues

I hate makeover issues.

As in, I have issues when you decide that I should have a makeover. And what that makeover ought to be.

I dislike Do’s and Don’ts; broadcasted, telegraphed, and insinuated mocking of what’s deemed a deficient style (and the expectation that the mocked laugh, too); and platforms that sell “be a better you.” I cringe at messages about self-acceptance that actually build their case on every insecurity we’ve taken on.

Short hair? Grow it!

Long hair? Cut it!

Fair? Color it!

Dark? Lighten it!

Do the opposite of what you are or, another favorite: “Do it for you!” Translation: Do (and be) something other than who you are and, while you’re at it, embrace the belief that you’re doing it for you.


I’ve straightened my hair “for me.”

I’ve cut my hair short “for me.”

I’ve not worn my hair long “for me.”

Except, it wasn’t for me.

In middle school, my mother told me to sleep with a stocking over my head—like a bank robber—to flatten out my hair. I did it (for me!). The next morning the crown of my head was smooth as an egg but the ends, which didn’t make it under the stocking, were hemmed with frizz.

It wasn’t so much the failed experiment (the original frizz was easily restored with water!), or the worse-looking “After” than what came “Before.” It wasn’t her laughter that confused me, but the way she laughed. And despite her seeming attempts to help, it was my frustration that captivated her most. Today I understand what my former self could not: That my hair was destined to be the puzzle that would never be solved. It became an outward expression for my mother’s untended inner life, overgrown with weeds and uncared for.  I was handed that without knowing exactly what I was being required to take on and carry for her—a lot of pain that wasn’t mine.

It reminds me of the makeover experts that seem more interested in entertaining themselves than actually caring. Which is why today I turn to only a trusted few for hair discussion, friends who would never exploit the tender spots on the inside in the name of beautifying (read: fixing) an imperfection on the outside. It’s taken time, but as I tend to my own internal spaces, planting seeds and pulling weeds, I more readily recognize that if  someone says, “You really should do a hair makeover” I can say—and believe—“No, actually, I don’t.”

And if I did, I’d know, because the call would rise up from inside me, which is where I’m learning to listen.


The Physics of Hair

We all know (or are learning) that wavy and curly hair is drier than hair that is straight. That straight hair gets natural oil all the way down the shaft, whereas hair with bends or twists can’t get the same benefits.

And we spend time thinking about our own curl patterns, or at least I do. I spent a lifetime with poofy hair and am in the process of letting my hair figure out what it wants to be. Tight dreadlock-style twists, rolls at my roots, s-waves that end in scythe-like hooks are separating from my hair’s undifferentiated fine bulk, finding friends with the same inclination. Two-dimensional patterns become three.

It’s physics, a balance in time and space. And physicists have actually studied it.

Physicists have never had very good computer models to represent how a curled strand of a flexible material behaves, which is one of the reasons the characters in computer animated cartoons tend to have straight hair. (Kudos to Pixar for giving it a go in Brave). But there’s more than cartoonery at stake in this particular curling event; industrial manufacturers are affected too.

Weight is the main issue, because the longer the hair, the greater the burden on the end. Shorter curly hair can move in its own directions, but with the addition of weight the system of movement becomes more complex, a “3D global helix,” in physics-speak.

And every person with curly hair has a different underlying pattern and structure, all those variables we try to control for as we find our perfect regimen and product combos—thickness, density, the pliability of each strand and its weight.

The researchers reduced all of these variables to algorithms, created models, and found they could predict the behavior of any type of strand, from the range of human hair properties to industrial metal.

Sure, all this helps in industrial design and engineering. But it also helps us understand the dizzying complexity of our own daily physics experiments. On any given day, we are wrestling to predict and control for the behavior of a “complex, chaotic system” that keep teams of physicists and computer models churning to get ahead of.

I don’t know about you, but for me, that puts bad hair days into a bit of perspective. It also makes me feel like I’m not doing too badly as I work through my hair’s identity issues.


No More Tears

For too much of my life I’ve tangled with the will of my own hair, not understanding the metaphor or symbolism.

I was fighting myself.

And fighting against the willfulness (translation: domination) of the parent from whom I inherited my curls. And the parent I didn’t.

My father’s hair was black and wavy with a few tiny spirals at the neck, little springs like in ball point pens.

My mother’s hair was fine and red and stick straight.

I lived trying to fit in. It was much more than “curly hair wasn’t in style back then.” It was: “you can’t exist.” It was: “do not exist.”

It was expressed as: “What’s wrong with your hair?” and trying not to laugh when they asked the question.

My hair was a perpetual field the hidden messages were played on. I had no conscious understanding but my deeper consciousness understood perfectly.

Unruly hair was easier.

It became a project.

I became a project.

My curls are uniformly non-uniform. They fall beneath my shoulders but are much longer when wet and hang to the middle of my chest. To my breasts. Which, for me, is significant. It’s the meaning, the femininity that my hair represents, speaking boldly when I think I can’t. Touching my heart. The center of my being.

A silent reminder.

And a loud one, though very quiet.

The femininity, the self—my Self—often felt wild and untamed and misunderstood.

I learned early not to “like” my hair because others didn’t “like” it.

Symbolism. Metaphor.

Tangling and tussling. Snarling. Fighting. So much time spent defying and managing and trying to make my hair conform. I’ve grown to love the tresses that for years made me cry. It’s not that my hair is ever perfect, but finally learning to see and yield to the insides of me first is the perfect metaphor for what I want most today. Finally learning the painful and beautiful truth that what is the root of me is forever impossible to deny. Lessons as numerous and individual as each curl.

Metaphor. Symbolism.



The In-between

Please identify and sort yourself. Climb into the appropriate box. If you feel things are a bit off in one box, and you think you might try the other—don’t! Stay where you are. It’s easier for everyone else.

What I’m comfortable with: books, ideas, pretty things that exist in the world separate from me. What I’m not comfortable with: anything to do with my body.

Bodies are awkward, they exist where other people can see and form opinions. And they change suddenly. Puberty, for example. Embrace it, and you are a giant slut. Do you know how your breasts look in that sweater??! Hide. And get reminders that you are visible: grabbing hands, snapping bra straps.

Disguise and blend. Be special, be just like everyone else.

I move to California and suddenly my hair is doing things beyond its usual poof at the bottom and vague frizz. Shapes in the back, curl at the bottom. Usually my hair is shorter to deal with the poof, but I am jobless and saving money. I wear a lot of half ponytails and scrunch scrunch scrunch. I twist the front, and it flops like a dense, dead fish.

I research and land on the Curly Girl Method. My hair looks really dumb when I start, dented and frizzy, with some twists. I’m applying products with the fury and skill of a toddler finger painting. My stylist and I develop a wary relationship, with competing expertise and a hint of defensiveness.

“Seventy percent of people have wavy or curly hair.” Whatever muse I am following, most people just straighten and get on with life. Or they straighten, then curl for smooth symmetry. Waves are cool, if they are in fashion, and only a certain way. Only those poor souls who have no choice wear their hair “natural.”

Years of treating my hair like it was straight, ironing it until it sizzled. Because and until it didn’t want to curl, and it didn’t want to straighten. I can see why my stylist is defensive, as my roots sprout curl in my straight sections.

My new salon I have chosen because they emphasize individuality. My stylist puts charts in front of me and asks me to put myself in a category. I point and can tell by her expression I’ve chosen wrong. We are talking about what we have in front of us, not what I think my hair is trying to express, not what I’ve noticed as the evolution of strands over time. It’s only recently that my hair has a persistent pattern when wet.

She has the kind of hair that doesn’t allow the luxury of a straighten. She is the one who gives me the 70% figure. I understand what she must be thinking. She has this burden and gift, and here I am pretending I am like her. She gamely sculpts my hair into their signature “beachy waves” look that I wash as soon as I get home.

Every day, I conjure, and things look just a little bit different but not quite what they might be.

Even still, I feel defensive and want to justify. List my pain points, cite my reasons, as though I need an iron-clad case and appropriate texture baseline. Like everyone else, I want a way to live with what I have.


Welcome to a Different Kind of Hair Journey

There’s no map. You find your way by trusting your instincts and seeking out some wise souls who have traveled a similar path.

We created Curl Sherpa because we love talking about our hair, not only the similarities, but the differences. The differences both highlight individuality and conversely create a commonality or universality, which makes the process that much more fun. We hope you think so, too. Welcome.

Laura and Meredith